PITTSBURGH—After disposing of Pittsburgh 2-0 Wednesday to sweep the series at PNC Park, the Cubs begin a stretch that will test their character, perseverance and overall strength.
Starting with Thursday night's game against Philadelphia at Wrigley Field, the Cubs will play 26 of their final 29 games against teams with winning records, including the last seven on the road against the New York Mets and Milwaukee.
Henry Blanco said. "We have to play our game, above anything else, and try to win more ballgames. And the rest will take care of itself."
Blanco's successful suicide squeeze in the two-run seventh, along with seven shutout innings from starter Jason Marquis, helped the Cubs to their 13th victory in their last 14 road games since July 23 in Arizona. They are 33 games above .500 (83-50) for the first time since 1945, the last time they won the National League pennant.
They went 7-2 against National League bottom-feeders Cincinnati, Washington and Pittsburgh, but the degree of difficulty increases significantly in the final month of the regular season.
"There's a challenge out there," manager Lou Piniella said. "We're going to be playing the top contenders from the East Division, and in the Central. Plus Houston has been playing well.
"We're playing all the teams vying for postseason except for the teams out of the West. It starts in earnest against the Phillies."
In what could be a postseason preview, the Cubs will send Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden, Ted Lilly and Carlos Zambrano against the Phillies, who are a half-game behind the Mets in the NL East after losing 6-3 to New York on Wednesday night.
"It's going to be a real good series," said Reed Johnson, who ignited the winning rally Wednesday with a bunt single off Zach Duke leading off the seventh.
"They're a powerhouse offensively and they have four tough pitchers lined up against us. We'll see which way the wind is blowing. That always dictates how games are played at Wrigley. We're going to have our work cut out for us."
Marquis allowed five hits while striking out three with no walks in seven innings Wednesday and might have proved he's more effective on normal rest than after skipping a start. He finished the month of August with a 3-1 record, improving to 9-7 for the season.
After losing it in the sixth inning of his last start against Washington, Marquis stopped trying to nibble and went right at Pirates hitters.
"Try to work quickly, get ground balls and let the defense help me out," he said of the game plan.
Duke shut the Cubs out for six innings until Johnson started the seventh with a bunt single. He advanced on Mark DeRosa's double and scored on Ronny Cedeno's groundout.
Blanco's suicide squeeze, the first by the Cubs since Ryan Theriot pulled one off on June 23, 2007, brought home an important insurance run before Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood finished it off.
The Cubs had quite a few concentration lapses in the series—including Alfonso Soriano making two unforced errors, Wood failing to cover first on a grounder to Derrek Lee and Zambrano's latest implosion—but still managed to sweep the overmatched Pirates.
Instead of being road kill, they're looking more and more like road warriors at the perfect time.
"We've picked it up," Piniella said. "I thought we would. I've said it all along. This was a very well-played game, basically on both sides, in contrast to [Tuesday night's 14-9 marathon]."